Half of the Final Four is set, and Butler and West Virginia’s bags are packed for Indy. To the dismay of many a bracket, the underdogs were over-achievers Saturday. (5) Butler beat (2) Kansas State and (2) West Virginia knocked off (1) Kentucky to make this tourney one for the ages.
There are two games on the schedule today for that trip to the Final Four, and (5) Michigan State versus (6) Tennessee looks to be chock-full of story lines.
These teams aren’t supposed to be here. Tennessee, out of the watered-down SEC, dismissed its top scorer and suspended three others after they were pulled over by a Knoxville patrolman January 1 and were charged with possession of a gun, marijuana and alcohol. Head Coach Bruce Pearl was down to six scholarship players and a handful of walk-ons to play the majority of the non-conference slate. The Vols were able to knock off Kansas and right the ship enough to get 3rd in the SEC. Now Tennessee is playing in their first Elite Eight in school history against a team that has a Lady Vol-like record in the post season.
Michigan State, with Tom Izzo at the helm, is used to a late March run in the Big Dance. The Spartans have nine Sweet 16 appearances in the last 13 years. They are trying for a sixth Final Four appearance in 12 seasons. What the Spartans aren’t usually used to is the rocky road they took to get here. February was disastrous to the Spartans. They lost the first three games of the month, and the team was injury-ridden and in meltdown mode. They bowed out of the Big Ten tourney after losing to cellar-dweller Minnesota in overtime. Before the NCAA Tourney, the Spartans had a players-only meeting because they all knew something had to be done. And then all-world guard Kalin Lucas left their second round game against Maryland with a season-ending injury.
All of this drama and turmoil between two teams that shouldn’t have made it this far. Both are big names in a tournament field that has been full of Cinderella’s. One will make it to Indianapolis and the Final Four.
Michigan State will need to slow the game down and not let Tennessee run up-and-down the court. Those suspensions for the Vols are over, but the injuries to the Spartans hurt their depth every game. The Vols killed Ohio State on the boards in their last game. If Tennessee can dominate the paint with Wayne Chism and Brian Williams, they win easy. If Michigan State’s Durrell Summers can slow the game down and hit his shots, Sparty will have a chance to move on to Indy.
Tip off of this matchup for the Midwest Title is 1:20. The winner advances to Indianapolis for the Final Four and will play Butler.
– Jonathan Weaver